Eight Games, Pt. 7: Return to Hot Chicken

The Game

So, uh, it’s mentioned on the previous page, but they really do play these games in a resort ballroom. The capacity is somehow 3,500. I doubt it.

 

ESPN lists the attendance at a hair over 1,300 for this game, which feels charitable, but some combo of Tennessee and Purdue fans on vacation along with locals (I’m guessing here) wander over to the ballroom for this noon tipoff. Also, this event is sponsored by the immortal Bad Boy Mowers. Karl Ravech and Robbie Hummel (Purdue graduate, large smile) are on the call.

It takes Tennessee some time to adjust to their surroundings. The Volunteers miss their first four shots, all by different players. For the vast majority of the first half, Purdue holds a comfortable 4-8 point lead over Tennessee that rarely gets crossed. With 5:25 left in the first, P.J. Thompson threatens to turn this game into a boring affair:

Rick Barnes immediately calls a timeout. I’ve referenced the KenPom Win Expectancy numbers in the past and utilize them frequently in my work; at this point, Tennessee has just a 10.7% chance to win. This feels pretty apt; those first two blowouts of overmatched opponents meant exactly nothing. Tennessee does get it back to 29-22, but an Isaac Haas layup pushes it back to 31-22, Purdue.

In most of the games covered in this series, either Tennessee or their opponent experiences a dry spell that can be explained away by some combo of inexperience, a not-great offense, or just “stop relying on 18-to-22 year olds to be consistent at anything.” What unfolds here is much different. This is a spoiler, but Purdue would finish this season with the second-best offense in college basketball. Only one Big Six offense (Villanova) would post a higher eFG% than Purdue’s 57.7%. No Big Six offense outshot Purdue’s 42% hit rate from three. They were experienced (2.11 average years, 52nd-best) with a ton of continuity from the previous season (74.4% of Minutes Continuity, 16th-best).

If any team Tennessee played in this season were to avoid an offensive dry spell, it would be Purdue. So perhaps it only makes sense that the least-likely dry spell in the entire season features the second-best college offense going seven straight possessions without scoring, then 12 of 13.

From the time Lamonte Turner hits this three:

To the next half when Carsen Edwards breaks up a 16-0 Tennessee run with a layup after his team goes scoreless for 6:10:

Purdue, a team that would finish the year with the 30th-best offensive TO%, turns it over six times in a seven-minute span. Tennessee dials up the pressure defensively, and it becomes less about Purdue’s inability to hit shots than it does Purdue’s inability to hang onto the ball. It seems like everyone on Tennessee’s roster begins to contribute in making life miserable for Purdue.

Tennessee goes from down 31-22 to up 40-33. The good news for Tennessee, of course, is that a massive chunk of that came in the aforementioned 16-0 run that spans just over six minutes of game time. The problem for Tennessee: after Edwards hits that layup, this game goes from slugfest to snoozefest. Neither team scores a single point for the 3:13 after Edwards’ layup. Lamonte Turner (40-33) and Vince Edwards (40-36) get it rolling again, but the complexion of the game changes.

Tennessee finds scoring a lot harder to come by. From 17:17 to 11:11 of the second half, Tennessee misses five layup attempts, one of which is blocked but the other four of which at least have a chance at going in. None of them do, and this allows Purdue back into the game. At 40-36, Jordan Bowden misses a critical opportunity off a steal to push Tennessee ahead by six:

Which allows Carsen Edwards to get fouled on the other end and cut the lead down to two points. That’s a true four-point swing in what’s been a very close game. Hope that doesn’t come back to bite Tennessee later!

With a bit over seven minutes left, there’s a nasty run of play where both teams manage to turn the ball over twice – four total turnovers! – in barely 33 seconds of game time. Please understand that a Top 25 team and also Tennessee were involved in this mess, so maybe it just makes sense. Whatever the case may be, on the other end, Grant Williams emerges to make his second three of the game. This is kind of a massive deal. Why? Grant Williams hit three three-pointers in the entire 2017-18 season.

No one on either side of the ball knows this yet, of course, but they’re witnessing something unusual. Perhaps inspired by this, Tennessee rips off a quick 7-0 run to go up 53-47 with 6:06 to play. Let’s check that Win Expectancy metric again…hey, looks pretty good! Tennessee’s sitting at 73.6% to win what would be easily their biggest away-from-home victory since…well, maybe the First Four against Iowa. Maybe even further back than that. (At the time of the game, Purdue was ranked 13th on KenPom; Tennessee’s most recent road/neutral win over a top 15 KenPom team at this point in time was December 11, 2010 against #4 Pittsburgh.)

Purdue isn’t dead, of course, and they get five quick points to get it back to 53-52. But Tennessee just keeps getting huge buckets, it seems. Jordan Bone hits a three that puts Tennessee up 58-54, and considering Purdue has only scored 23 points in the last 20 minutes of basketball, 58 reasonably could’ve been enough.

Let’s revisit our end-of-first-half talking point: every offense has a period of down times. Tennessee’s would’ve been a lot more predictable than Purdue. Tennessee’s offense would finish the 2017-18 season ranked 36th nationally – not bad! – but would rank below the national average in eFG% (50.8% versus 51%) and struggled mightily to get consistent scoring inside the perimeter (47.3% on twos, 278th-best). So you would be a lot less surprised to hear that Tennessee scores just once in its next six possessions.

Carsen Edwards gives Purdue the lead with 2:54 to go:

And after some back-and-forth free throws, it’s not looking great for Tennessee. With 18 seconds left, Tennessee gets the ball back down 63-60. Every time this situation happens, commentators feel required to tell the audience that the team down three “doesn’t necessarily need a three here.” Uh, yeah, you do. You are down by three points. You don’t need three points?

This is exacerbated by two things: Purdue’s free throw shooting and Tennessee’s own desperation. Purdue hit 84% of their free throws on this day and 74.3% on the season; even the very-best case scenario of Tennessee getting a two > Purdue hitting one of two free throws still requires the 278th-best two-point offense to score two points.

For the final 1:23 of this basketball game, Tennessee runs with the following lineup: Grant Williams, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Kyle Alexander, and Lamonte Turner. By the end of this season, this wasn’t a lineup they’d use all that often; it was barely Tennessee’s fifth-most used lineup in the month of March 2018. It makes some amount of sense: Bone (38%), Bowden (39.5%), and Turner (39.5%) are all very skilled three-point shooters; Williams and Alexander are in there if you need the two-point option. Why Admiral Schofield (39.5%) wasn’t out there is…questionable, but whatever. Tennessee needs rebounds, too, and Williams and Alexander are excellent offensive rebounders.

Turner, a three-star who got time at IMG Academy, was perhaps the most interesting case study of this lineup. To even play basketball at Tennessee, he had to exclusively go to class for the entirety of the 2015-16 school year at UT to become eligible for 2016-17. It wasn’t as if Turner was an ignored three-star, either: he received offers from Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami (FL), Oklahoma, and more. But he never got the offer many felt he held out for: Alabama, the closest major school to his hometown of Harvest, AL.

So Turner came to Tennessee, a team that badly needed guards who could score and pass and at least seemed interested on defense. Turner earned playing time at the start simply because of his tenacity; there were few moments during a 2016-17 game where, if Turner was on the court, he didn’t do something or make something happen. Whether he was always good or not was another story, but every Lamonte Turner minute held real interest.

Turner didn’t start a single game in 2017-18. He only started six across his first two years of college. But, when the time came, Rick Barnes called his number to force overtime.

Turner answered. Overtime.

Unfortunately, overtime temporarily seemed to halt any and all momentum Tennessee had left. Grant Williams scored first, which was nice, but then Tennessee gave up a 7-0 run in 1:02 of game time. Purdue was up, 70-65, with an 88.2% chance of holding on. In a game of strange, one-off samples, like Williams hitting two of his three deep balls for the entire season, Tennessee would need another unusual outcome to go their way. Perhaps something like Kyle Alexander hitting the first three of his entire college career on his only attempt of the season might help.

That seemed to give Tennessee a spark. P.J. Thompson answers on the other end to make it 73-68, Purdue, but Tennessee comes back with a Williams layup followed by a Williams jumper. With under a minute to go, the ball ends up in Williams’ hands again. He’d be well within his right to take any shot he wants at this point; Purdue has seriously struggled to stop him late in this game.

Instead, he passes to the open man. That would be Alexander, again, though for a much more common shot this time.

Purdue would take a timeout, then immediately out of the timeout, Haas would hit a layup to put Purdue back on top, 75-74. Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, this is an admirable showing by Tennessee in a game they weren’t expected to win. However, the time for admirable showings has grown old.

Tennessee needs a win against a marquee opponent away from home. Badly. They give the ball to Williams again. Everyone knows who Grant Williams is now, but at the time, he was a promising sophomore that chose Tennessee as his only Big Six offer over Ivy League schools. If his parents had made the choice for him, he would’ve been an Ivy Leaguer.

Luckily for Tennessee, he chose orange. And he chose correctly.

76-75, Tennessee.

Nine seconds left. Purdue doesn’t take a timeout; instead, the ball hits P.J. Thompson’s hands. This is fairly surprising, because in this game, no starter had a lower Usage Rate than Thompson’s 9%. However: he was 3-for-4 on three. He didn’t take a three.

James Daniel is fouled; he hits both free throws. There’s one final play for Purdue, who has about two seconds to work with. Kyle Alexander, the former 362nd-ranked recruit who was headed to New Mexico until Rick Barnes stepped in, sticks his hand up…

…and ends the game. A true, genuine Signature Win away from home. Finally.

NEXT PAGE: Paddle forward

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